Team preview: Sam Houston State

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

For the entire off-season, Sam Houston State had to be considered the hands-down favorite to win the 2006-07 Southland Conference men's basketball title.

The Bearkats were coming off a 22-9 season -- the fifth highest win total in the school's 87-year history -- and despite losing leading scorer Chris Jordan to graduation, they returned the other four starters plus seven players who averaged at least 13 minutes a year ago. Even with the loss of Jordan, the Bearkats were still returning 72.8 percent of their scoring and 80 percent of their rebounding from last season.

The runners-up to a very talented, senior-laden Northwestern State team, Sam Houston State also had the added motivation of being the only team in the country with at least 22 wins not to make either the NCAA Tournament or NIT. Surely, that would leave them chomping at the bit to prove their worth this time around.

But even the most certain paths have bumps. Sam Houston State hit a big one in mid-August, when starting center John Gardiner tore an anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that will force him to miss the entire season and earn a medical red-shirt.

Gardiner, a 6-8 senior, averaged 7.8 points per game last season and was second on the squad in rebounding (5.2). He also shot .547 from the field and led the team in blocks with 33. Suffice it to say coach Bob Marlin was expecting even more from him this season.

But if anyone can overcome this injury, it's most likely Marlin's Bearkats. Marlin has won more games in his seven years at Sam Houston (138) than any other coach in the league during that stretch. And he's used to dealing with injured players and having to find replacements.

"Someone will just have to step up," Marlin said. "People stepped up for us two years ago when we lost [two-time all-conference selection] Eddie Fobbs. We'll red-shirt him and let him heal. We're not going to rush anybody back. And we'll have to have other people step up.

"That year we ended up with six guys who had never played Division I and we finished fifth in the league and went 8-8. For that team, I actually think it was quite an accomplishment."

Losing Gardiner is a huge blow, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a fatal one for this team. These Bearkats are a smart bunch, and they're certain to figure out another method of success.

How smart? Of the 10 spots on the first- and second units of the Southland Conference All-Academic team, five were taken by players from Sam Houston State. The Bearkats also proved their mental toughness by going 12-2 in games decided by six points or fewer.

And, they are smart with the basketball. Sam Houston State led the Southland last season in assists with 18.52 per game and finished first in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.15.

"We talk a lot about being smart, but also being mentally tough," Marlin said. "I think we showed last year that we've got kids who are mentally tough."